While the box game is fantastic mental enrichment for any dog, it is particularly good for helping fearful dogs gain confidence as they explore new and novel objects, textures and surfaces.
Set up the game to accommodate your dog’s current ability and comfort level. Use several boxes of different sizes and shapes. Start out with different boxes set up at different levels of difficulty – see the levels below. Let your dog try the course. Take note of where he is confident and where he struggles, then adjust the course accordingly to set him up for success.
Each time you set up the course, keep some boxes at easy levels, some where your dog is confident or gaining confidence and one or two more challenging set ups. If the dog is not comfortable with any of your set ups, take a moment to change things up to back off a bit on the difficulty level. Use his body language as your guide to his level of comfort.
The box game can also be played with a single box – adjusting the difficulty as your dog gains confidence.
Always scatter some treats on the floor between and away from the boxes so that the dog has the choice to opt out of exploring boxes and still has the opportunity to receive rewards. Requiring the dog to put his head into a box in order to gain a reward when he is scared to do so (or simply doesn’t want to) is coercive. Coercion has no place in dog training. Rather than speeding up the process, it will actually hamper your efforts to help your dog gain confidence.
Level 1 Upsidedown
Lay a medium-size box upside down on the floor. Put a couple of treats on the box and scatter treats around on the floor.
Move back and let your dog investigate at his own pace. If he is hesitant to take treats off the box, move them to the floor near the box. If the flaps are scaring him, fold them into the box.
Once he is able to take treats off of the top of the box, he is ready for Level 2.
Level 2 Box Game on its Side
Turn a box on its side and place a treat on top of the box and on the edge of the bottom lip of the box. If the dog is nervous about the flaps of the box, you can fold those inside until a later step. If the dog is able to take a treat from the lower lip of the box, try moving the treat farther and farther into the interior of the box.
This level may be easier with a larger box to begin with – especially if the flaps are sticking out. If the box is small, the dog will have to brush his head along the top flap as he reaches in to pick up the treat.
As the dog gains confidence, you can decrease the size of the box. You can even fold the top flap down a bit so that it partially obstructs the interior of the box. We are working toward your dog being comfortable reaching into the box and brushing the flaps with confidence.
Level 3 Reaching Inside
At this stage, we are asking the dog to reach into a box to get his reward. Start with a box that is low enough that your dog can reach in and touch the bottom of the box without needing to touch the sides of the box or lean into the box. The flaps are folded in at this point. If the dog is worried about reaching into a box with solid sides, you can use a basket or hamper.
As the dog gains confidence, you can start using larger, taller boxes that require the dog to lean into the box to reach the bottom.
When your dog is reaching into the box with confidence and pushing it across the floor to get all of the treats, he is ready to move to the next level.
Level 4 Flaps Out
One by one, fold the flaps out. Eventually all the flaps are sticking out and the dog will need to touch a flap in order to reach into the box.
Level 5 Adding Elements
The next level of difficulty for the box game is adding items to the box. Start with a single familiar item that you dog will not be afraid to move around with his nose in order to reach the treats. As your dog gains confidence, add more items – even novel items..
Level 6 Flaps In
Start folding the flaps inward so that they brush the dog’s head and face as he reaches into the box and as he pulls his head back out.
The Ultimate Box Game
Lock the flaps and let your dog work at getting into the box.
Some dogs will stick their head into the box and pull his head out to open the flaps. Other dogs will use their paws to open the box. Still others will dive right in and start ripping up the box to get inside. Any and all methods are acceptable.
Caution: If your dog is a box shredder, keep an eye on him to make sure he is not eating large pieces of the box. Avoid sticky and wet treat items to prevent scent and moisture from seeping into the cardboard – this can encourage the dog to ingest cardboard.
The Exploratory Box Game
Use a box, basket or hamper that your dog is comfortable with. Fill it with new and novel objects, textures and surfaces. Different types of balls (soft, fuzzy, rubber, textured, prickly, squeaky, etc.), stuffies, squeaky toys, rope toys, frisbee, crinkly items like water bottles or packing paper, etc. Chew toys like antlers, synthetic bones, bully stick, etc.
Let the dog explore as he chooses. If he pulls out a toy, take the time to play with him and his new treasure.
This blog is all about having a great time with your dog doing a fun backyard activity that any dog and human team can participate in. Most of you have heard of dog agility and nosework, but have you heard of dog parkour, hoopers, treibball or rally? Each of these dog sports can be set up at home with simple items PLUS they can all be customized to accommodate dogs and people of any age or ability.
Watching this amazing agility run is inspiring, but since the vast majority of pet dog owners do not have a high-drive, purpose-bred agility dog, it is more the stuff of dreams. That said, … can you do something like this with your own pet dog? Absolutely! Backyard agility, doggie parkour, hoopers, treiball, rally and scentwork are all great activities that can be fully customized to suit both you and your dog’s abilities and available resources.
You do need a bit of space for this backyard activity, but it is easy to customize your equipment and course to fit the space you have available. If you are lucky enough to have a huge space, you can set up a full agility course. But maybe you have a tiny yard, or no yard at all. You can still set up a few pieces of equipment in your yard, in your basement or even a spare bedroom. Make sure your dog has room to navigate obstacles and that your flooring provides a safe surface for jumping, turning and running (e.g., grass, sand, carpet, foam floor tiles, etc.)
You can purchase agility equipment, make your own equipment, or transform items around your home. What are you going to need?
Cavaletti kits are available for purchase online and include cones and crossbars to create jumps. You can build something more permanent with PVC or you can rig up jumps with something as simple as a broom handle and a couple of overturned laundry baskets.
Tunnels are available to purchase online. You can also build your own. Create a frame with garden stakes and pool noodles. Push two garden stakes into the ground about 24-28″ apart. Push a pool noodle over the top of one garden stake. Arch it over and push it downover the other garden stake. What you have will look like a giant croquet hoop. Line up several of your hoops about two feet apart. Cover them with a sheet and secure the sheet to the garden stakes with zip ties or hose clamps.
Pick up 6 to 8 garden stakes or chain link fence tension bars. To make lawn care easy, place the stakes in the ground in a straight line, a few inches farther apart than the width of your lawn mower. This won’t meet national standards, but it will allow you to mow your lawn without have to remove the stakes each time. To make them easy for your dog to see, use a 2-3 feet length of PVC pip or pool noodle as a sleeve over the stakes.
You can use an elevated dog bed, a mat or a blanket for this piece of equipment. The key here is to have a visible target for the dog to sit/lie on to take a 15 second pause before moving on to the next obstacle.
The dog walk is similar to a narrow bridge that your dog will walk up and across. You can build an official elevated dog walk or you can use an appropriately wide board. For example, if you have a medium to large breed, pick up a 2×12 that is 6 to 8 feet long. Lay it right the ground and practice with you dog just walking the length of the board. Once he has this down, you can elevate the board by attaching 2×4 or 4×4’s to the bottom.
You can build a seesaw or you can use an appropriately wide board. For example, if you have a medium to large breed, pick up a 2×12 that is 6 to 8 feet long. For the center fulcrum, you can use a soup can or larger juice can laid on its side.
Other Obstacle Ideas
Grab a hoola hoop and have your dog jump through it. Set up cones to go around, do figure-8’s around or even a cloverleaf pattern. Lay out several pool noodles and have your dog step over them. There are so many possibilities.
“Parkour is a physical discipline in which individuals move through their environment and conquer obstacles in their path. It includes climbing, balancing, jumping, running, vaulting, creativity and working past fear. So what is dog parkour?
Dog parkour, sometimes known as urban agility, is an activity based on the same principles. It is a challenging, but fun, physical activity in which the dogs learn to interact with their environment. Just like in the human version, in dog parkour we work on ways to conquer obstacles, such as climbing, balancing, and jumping.”
You can approach parkour as a sport in which you could earn titles – or as a fun way to interact with the environment on your neighborhood walks. Parkour has been shown to be helpful in calming reactive and anxious dogs.
As your dog’s partner, you are keeping him safe by acting as his spotter.
Harness and Leash: Use a harness with a 4-6′ leash clipped to the back of the harness.
Retractable leashes and long lines can become tangled and create a safety hazard
NEVER use prong collars, slip/choke collars, slip lead or head halter.
Obstacles should be no higher than the handler’s shoulder height.
Do not let your dog jump down onto hard surfaces from any obstacle higher than that dog’s shoulder height. Instead, use his harness to help lower him to the ground.
Check before letting your dog enter public or private property.
Parkour can be done off leash if spotting is not necessary.
Balancing on stumps, rocks, logs, benches, parking space barriers, retaining walls, etc. Be sure that any obstacle that you are asking your dog to climb or jump onto has been checked for stability.
Balancing on or weaving around parking spot barriers.
Walking along retaining walls.
Stepping up or backing up onto stairs or curbs.
Walk on top of or crawl under benches.
Weaving around a line of trees or bushes.
Another great backyard activity is hoopers. Hoopers is a more accessible form an agility for young, senior and disabled dogs. It involves running through tunnels and hoops and going around barrels.
You can create huge courses if you have the space, but you can also incorporate parts of this game into tiny spaces.
Hoops can be purchased online or you can create your own with garden stakes and pool noodles.
Tunnels are available to purchase online. You can also create your own by putting several of your homemade hoops about two feet apart. Cover them with a sheet and secure the sheet to the garden stakes with zip ties or hose clamps
Barrels are not easy to come by, but you can replace them with trash cans, waste baskets, cones, or even folding chairs.
Treibball is also called Urban Herding. From the National Association of Treibball Enthusiasts website: “Treibball is an exciting new dog sport that began in Germany a few years ago. The goal is for the person and the dog to work as a team. The handler directs the dog from a distance around a set of balls to push them into a goal one by one. In competition the dog’s work is timed. Distance, time, and the number of balls are some of the variables in the game.”
Human exercise balls work great for backyard treibball games.
You can get fancy and build a goal according to NATE standards or you could also use a soccer goal if you have one. If you want to make it super simple, just set up a couple of cones and use the imaginary line between them as your goal line.
In rally, you and your dog work through a course that includes 10 to 20 stations. Each station has a sign that displays a skill for your team to perform. As a backyard activity, you can set up as many, or as few, stations as you choose and use skills that are as easy, or difficult, as you choose. Backyard rally is a fun way to have friendly family competitions or practice skills with your dog.
Official sign holders are available to purchase online; however, you can just a easily clip your signs to cones or landscape stakes.
Scentwork or nosework is an activity that puts your dog’s amazing olfactory senses to work. This can be a super simple game of Find It or a Scatter feed in the yard. Hide treats in strategic location (or container) or two in the yard and send your dog out to locate them. Stick small pieces of cheese, hot dog or lunch meat to a stump, retaining wall or fence and let your dog sniff them out. Set up a trail of treats for your dog to follow. These simple versions of scent work are easy to set up and give your dog instant gratification when he finds and eats the treat.
Another version of scentwork is freework. This amazing activity was created in the UK by Sarah Fisher to help reactive and anxious shelter dogs to decompress. Various objects, textures and surfaces are set up around the yard (or in the house). Different types of treats, both soft and crunchy are laid out around and on the obstacles at various heights. Intersperse with a few stations that include something to lick. This is a great way to help a fearful dog gain confidence through exploring known and novel objects and to help reactive and anxious dogs to calm down and decompress through the slow, methodical completion of the course.
Finally, there is “true” nosework during which a dog is asked to locate a particular scent and then is rewarded for locating that scent. You can purchase supplies online and the AKC has a short tutorial on how to begin teaching this sport to your dog.
I hope this gives you some inspiration for ways you can get outside and create fun backyard activities to do with your dog. Enjoy!
Kerrie Hoar. M.S., CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, LFDM, FFCP
Kerrie has a master’s degree in Biology and is a certified professional dog trainer and family dog mediator. She own Crimson Hound, LLC dog training in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The 4th of July is almost upon us. Did you know that more dogs go missing on the 4th of July than any other day of the year?! The busiest day of the year at animal shelters across the country is July 5th. Studies show that upwards of 50% of dogs express fearful behaviors in the face of loud noises.
So, what can you do to help your dog navigate the 4th of July holiday?
Is my dog scared?
The first question we need to ask ourselves is this . . . Is my dog scared? Dogs who are afraid or stressed will exhibit some, or all, of the following body language cues:
Pinned back ears
Crouching or hiding
Trembling or shaking
Whale eye (whites of the eyes are showing)
Whining or barking
Lip or nose licking
Urinating or defecating
Why is my dog afraid of loud noises?
The first thing to consider is that so many more individuals than just your scared pup are sensitive to loud noises such as fireworks and thunder . . . combat veterans, babies, autistic children, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, horses, sheep, zoo animals, birds and other wildlife . . .
We all have a startle reflex that is activated by loud noises. Some of us have nervous systems that are more sensitive to these types of stimuli. If we know what is making that noise or it is expected, we can often regulate our reaction. But, dogs don’t have a gmail calendar or a weather app, so these phenomenon can take them by surprise and trigger their “fight or flight’ response.
Any type of past trauma associated with loud noises (e.g., your puppy was scared by his first fireworks experience, a veteran who experienced combat, etc.) will add to the severity of the reaction. In some cases, something as simple as an oven timer, a smoke alarm, a single firecracker bang or a dropped pan can send an individual into a panic attack – so imagine how a full 4th of July fireworks display is going to affect them.
Some breeds, like the herding and gun dog breeds, are predisposed to noise phobias.
Moreover, dogs and other animals find loud noises to not only be aversive, but painful as well.
For example, while humans are not able to detect sounds above 20,000Hz, dogs can hear up to 60,000Hz. Some fireworks emit sounds above the level of human hearing, but dogs are able to detect those sounds.
In addition, we must consider the effect of trigger stacking on our dogs during the week leading up to the 4th of July. Trigger stacking is a phenomenon where a combination of multiple stressors, some might be quiet minor, occur over a short period of time and culminate in an extreme reaction. If your dog is hearing a firework or two a couple of times each day for the week leading up to the 4th of July, he may already be trigger stacked before a single firecracker is lit on July 4th. By the time that the main fireworks display begins, your dog is way beyond his threshold.
Microchips and Identification
Be sure that your dog is never without some form of identification. Check that his name tag has your current contact information. Double check your microchip provider website to be sure that 1) you are listed as your dog’s owner and 2) your contact information is up to date. If your dog (or other pet) is not microchipped, I strongly recommend having that done as soon as possible. Dogs can slip out of their collar/harness if they panic and try to run away. If you dog’s collar is caught on something, the tags can be torn away. Simply put, microchips work!
Other collar options are the GPS collars and attachments that allow you to track your dog’s whereabouts. Beware, however, that the cheaper models often do not live up to the range that is advertised. I have seen lost dogs with trackers that were supposed to work within 100 yards that didn’t actually ping the owner’s phone until the dog was less than 20 feet away.
Just in case you need to post lost dog flyers, always have current photos of your dog on hand. Take good shots from multiple angles to include any identifying markings, scars, etc. . . . close-ups and/or full body shots. If you have your dog clipped, have photos with both long coat and short coat – dogs often look very different before and after grooming!
Double check gates to be sure that they are securely latched BEFORE letting your dog out of the house.
Add a second layer of safety and take your dog out in the yard on a leash or long line. Dogs can be unbelievably agile and athletic fence jumpers when they are in a blind panic.
Be sure that your doors and windows are secured latched. A window screen is not going to hold a dog who is panicking and trying to escape.
Don’t leave your dog unattended in your yard – scared dogs may run through invisible fences, break tethers, climb or jump fences or dig their way out of yards.
Don’t take your pup to a fireworks display – leave him safe at home.
If you are hosting a party at your home, put your pup in his crate, in a locked room for the evening. There is no reason to chance someone leaving a door open or, worse yet, someone spooking your already frightened dog and getting bit or having your dog run away.
Your dog may already have a safe space – a spot in the basement, his crate, a particular bed or dog bed, under furniture, in a closet, etc. If not, you can create a safe space. The following are tips on how to create a safe space or enhance your dog’s current space.
Find a quiet location where outside noises will be muffled. A location where you can block the flashes and lights from fireworks explosions is best – e.g., basement, a room/closet with no windows, a room with room darkening curtains, etc. can all be good options. If your dog likes his crate, you can cover it with a blanket that will help dampen sound as well as darken the space.
Be sure that your dog has access to plenty of clean water in his safe space. Panting or drooling will cause a dog to dehydrate quickly.
Adding some kind of white noise and/or soothing noise will add to the peaceful atmosphere that you are trying to create for your dog.
White or brown noise machine or app
Radio turned to classical, country or reggae music
Youtube has several tracks with calming music playing in a 8-15 hour loop
Adding a box fan during a recent fireworks show has made a huge difference for my Australian shepherd.
There is a difference between sound proofing and sound masking. The concept of sound proofing may not be possible, so think about concentrating your efforts in masking those scary sounds.
Enrichment and/or Comfort Items
Licking . . .
Chewing . . .
Sniffing . . .
. . . 3 things that help calm a dog.
Give your dog her favorite type of chew, a stuffed Kong or Topple type of toy or some type of licki mat activity.
Once you have your dog’s safe space set up, fill it with items that your dog finds comforting. Does your dog have a favorite stuffy or blanket? Add an old t-shirt or sweatshirt that you have been wearing. Your dog will find your scent comforting.
There are a lot of options on the market for calming products:
Thundershirts® work on the same principle as swaddling a baby or giving a hug. The pressure causes the release of oxytocin and/or endorphins that have a calming effect.
You may have heard of Adaptil®. This is a pheromone product that mimics the pheromones produced by nursing mother dogs and have a calming effect on her puppies. Adaptil® comes in wall diffusers, sprays or collar form. It has been shown to have a calming effect on some dogs, so it is definitely something to try.
There are many types of nutraceutical products that purport to act as calming agents. A nutraceutical is a supplement or food additive. These products are not regulated by the FDA, so they are a “buyer beware” type of product. You must do your research to determine if the product you have purchased contains the ingredients on the label. They can also be extremely expensive. There is anecdotal evidence that products such as; July 3rd, Rescue Remedy, calming chews, cbd oil, etc., do calm dogs BUT there is little to no scientific evidence to back up these claims. I am not saying that they won’t work for your dog – just be aware.
The other option, and the one that I would highly recommend looking into TODAY, is some type of pharmaceutical prescribed by your veterinarian. Pharmaceuticals can be used as a situational calming medications that will enable your dog to cope with his noise phobia. There are many different types of situational medications and your vet will help you choose the one that is right for your pet. If you do go this route, be sure that you follow the directions for dosage and administration on the bottle. Some of these drugs need a 1- to 2-hour onboarding window before they will take effect – meaning that if the fireworks show starts at 9pm, you will need to give the medication at 7 or 8pm. Others, however, take effect much faster. The length of effectiveness also varies, so be aware of this so that you are re-dosing properly.
Comforting your dog
Contrary to what you may have heard or read, you cannot reinforce fear. So, by all means, go ahead and cuddle your dog if he is asking for comfort.
Never punish your dog for being afraid or try to force/flood them into just “getting used to it”.
Prepping for the 4th of July
Try to limit stress in the days leading up to the 4th of July. If your dog is already partially trigger stacked, it will be easier to send him over threshold on the 4th.
If you will be giving medication, be sure that you have your dog’s prescription(s) filled and ready to go.
Follow the directions to be sure that you are administering any medications or supplements correctly and in a timely fashion. You don’t want to realize 5 minutes before the big fireworks display is set to begin that you should have given your dog his medication 2 hours ago.
Fill and freeze your enrichment activities ahead of time.
Make sure that your dog’s safe space is set up and ready to use.
Take your dog out early in the day for some physical exercise.
Double leash your dog anytime you are outside your house or fenced yard. You can use two leashes (or a double-ended leash) and hook one leash to your dog’s harness and the other to his collar. That way, if a he hears an early firework and backs out of one, he is still attached to you by the other.
Make sure to take your pup out for a potty break before fireworks begin as he may not want to go out afterwards.
For highly fearful dogs who refuse to go outside during the day, you can create a doggie litter box that you can set up in your garage, mudroom or basement.
What about July 5th . . . and 6th . . . and 7th . . .
Where am I going with this? Remember trigger stacking? Well, If your dog was trigger stacked and stressed out in the days leading up to the 4th of July, how do you think he feels in the day or two that follow that big 4th of July fireworks display?!?
Remember, cortisol takes time to clear out of your dog’s system AND additional stressors will have an additive effect on your dog’s blood cortisol levels. Also keep in mind that your neighbors are going to continue to light off a firework or two in the days after the 4th. Each time a firework goes off, or a car backfires, or you drop a book, or there is a thunderstorm, your dog is going to continue to trigger stack. So what . . . well, if you have a reactive dog or a fearful dog, remember that trigger stacking can make all of their behavior issues worse . . . to the point of an increased incidence of aggressive behaviors and bite incidents during this time period. I recommend that you continue to follow the “day of” instructions for the first few days after the 4th. It is better to be safe than sorry.
Training for Next Year
What do you need to get started so you are ready to the NEXT 4th of July?
A recording of fireworks (or other scary sound like thunder, loud trucks, etc) with music and one without
Plenty of high value treats or high value toy
Time, Patience and plenty of Enthusiasm
You can purchase sound recordings created specifically for desensitizing dogs to noises. iCalmPet has CDs that combine classical music with thunderstorms, fireworks or city sounds. You can find similar tracks on YouTube as well – or you can simply record the sounds yourself.
The music and sound tracks are created to present the noises quietly at first, then progress to simulate noises that are closer and closer to you and with smaller and smaller intervals between. The idea is to play these tapes at the easiest level and at a volume low enough that it appears that your dog does not even notice. As you see your dog easily coping at the current level, you are ready to increase volume and/or move to a more difficult track.
This is all that some dogs will need. Many others, however, will need a bit more help making positive associations with loud noises. This is where your recording of just loud noises (no music) will come into play.
Start at a very low volume. We want to start where the dog is just noticing the sound. Play the sound and feed your dog a high value treat or reward with a game of tug, etc. Repeat this several times.
Let’s put a label on it. You can call the loud noise anything you choose, but I would recommend choosing a label that you will remember to use for every loud noise. For example, if you choose “Boom”, then any and every loud noise is now “Boom”. We are trying to generalize the label to mean that any loud noise is a “Boom” that predicts good stuff.
Now the steps become: Sound . . . Boom . . . Feed Treat and Celebrate. Repeat this several times.
Keep treats on you during training so that you are ready if the real deal happens unexpectedly!
Do several repetitions of Step 3 each day.
As your dog becomes more comfortable, you can begin to increase the volume of the sound.
You should also begin to vary the reward and location of the reward.
The Final Sequence: Noise . . . Boom . . . run to the treat cupboard/refrigerator . . . Feed Treat or Play & Celebrate Enthusiastically.
Now you are ready for the real thing.
NOTE: Order is important!
Be sure that your dog hears the noise BEFORE you label it and feed treats. If, for example, you see a flash of lightning and begin feeding before you hear the thunder, you risk reversing the association. Instead of seeing noises (thunder) as predicting good things (treats), your dog instead associates treats as predicting scary noises are about to follow.
Teaching positive associations with loud noises is pretty straight forward when it comes to noises like trucks, dropping pots/pans, etc. It is impossible, however, to simulate atmospheric changes and odors that accompany fireworks and thunder. Large fireworks are accompanied by sound, flashes of light and burning smells. Whereas thunder is preceded by changes in barometric pressure and humidity that dogs detect, as well as their keen ability to smell rain and hear thunder long before we are able to do so. This process can take a long time with these types of noises. So, the moral of the story is . . . start today so that you and your dog are ready for NEXT year!
But My Dog is Still Scared
There are times when regardless of how well prepared we think we are, our dog is simply not able to cope with the noise or the vibrations associated with fireworks (and thunderstorms). What can you do?
Well, the first thing you need to do is accept that your dog can’t help that he is fearful. Fear is an emotion and you can’t control emotions. Then you do the best that you can do. See your veterinarian about getting medication. If that medication is not working, don’t be afraid to tell your vet and ask about a different dosage or a different medication altogether. In some cases, consulting with a veterinary behaviorist may be a good option. VBs are veterinarians who have taken advanced work in canine behavior and have additional knowledge in the nuances of behavioral medications. Give yourself some leeway … there are a very limited number of VBs in the U.S. and wait times for an appointment can be months.
Relocate. I am not talking about moving house, but can you plan a dog-friendly vacation to a quiet spot over the 4th of July holiday. Would a simple drive out and away from the epicenter of the noise work for your dog?
No options? Hunker down with your dog, turn on the box fan, turn up the TV, music or white noise machine and wait it out. If you dog prefers to be left alone, that’s okay. If your dog does need comfort, don’t be afraid to comfort him. There is not truth to the myth that comforting your dog just reinforces his behavior. Fear is not a conscious behavior that your dog has chosen to perform. Fear is an emotion that he cannot control. If being comforted makes you feel better when you are afraid, then your dog probably feels the same.
Kerrie Hoar, CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, LFDM-T/L, FFCP
Kerrie Hoar has a master’s degree in Biology and is a certified professional dog trainer and licensed family dog mediator. She owns Crimson Hound, LLC dog training in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
I am afraid of snakes (ophidiophobia). The biologist in me finds snakes fascinating; however, when I encounter one, my emotions take over. I live close to a nice trail system looping through a marsh that is home to tons of wildlife – including a variety of snakes. Fortunately for me, I don’t see snakes very often, but ….
Imagine if you will . . .
One sunny afternoon, my husband and I decide to take the dogs for a long relaxing walk through the marsh. Just as we start up the trail, I see a snake. I jump and give a small shout . . . but, I haven’t seen a snake in the marsh in such a long time, so let’s soldier on and not let it ruin the walk.
Just a few hundred yards farther down the trail, I think I see another snake. No! However, as we get closer, I realize that it’s just a stick. Phew! We continue walking, but I find myself spending more and more time scanning for snakes and less and less time enjoying the scenery.
A little way beyond the halfway point of our loop, there is a rocky area that looks like a perfect spot for a snake to sun itself. I approach with my eyes riveted to the rocks and, sure enough, there is a snake – a little snake, but still a snake. Ugh! Now I am really feeling the stress. Not only do I have to walk past that snake, but I am sure there are others hiding amongst the rocks.
What now? While I could turn around, it will take longer to go back than it will to just keep going. So here I am – feeling panicky and stuck. Why didn’t I just turn around when I saw that first snake?!
With no other optional this point, I continue on, but what started as a nice relaxing walk has turned into a forced march. I am no longer enjoying myself. Instead, I am agitated and on high alert, scanning all around me and imagining the worst. As a consequence, I find myself walking faster and faster to just out of the marsh as quickly as possible.
When my husband innocently asks me to slow down a bit, I lose it. I mean, I really lose it. To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I have turned into a raving maniac, yelling at him for even suggesting that we take the walk in the first place. The tears are close to surfacing . . . there is still a couple hundred feet of trail and there are sure to be more snakes.
YIKES!! Where did the rational adult go? You know, the one who KNOWS that a little garter snake is not going to kill her . . . the one who finds snake anatomy absolutely fascinating . . . the one who has never even had a bad encounter with a snake to create such an irrational fear . . . the one who keeps saying that she just needs to get over this fear of snakes . . .
Reason and common sense clearly lost the battle to fear and panic . . . and the fight or flight response took over. Fear and anxiety function in a very similar fashion in the canine brain. So, if you will, take a moment to insert a dog afraid of other dogs into this story and I think you can imagine how what started out as a relaxing walk could quickly turn into a nightmare for your dog.
While you most surely understand this type of phobia, you may be wondering something … why was it the innocent comment that sent me over the edge – and NOT the sight of the first or the second snake?
The answer is TRIGGER STACKING.
What is trigger stacking?
Trigger stacking is a phenomenon where a combination of multiple stressors, some might be quiet minor, occur over a short period of time and culminate in an extreme reaction.
Every individual has a threshold beyond which they will have a reaction.
Each time an individual encounters a stressor, a certain amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) is released. Different stressors will create different amounts of cortisol in different individuals. If an individual event creates enough cortisol to cross the reactivity threshold, the individual will react.
Stressors can also have an additive effect. It takes 5 to 8 hours for cortisol to dissipate from the blood stream. If an additional stressor occurs within that 5-8 hour window, the cortisol that is released from the second event is added to the cortisol still in the system from the first event . . . bringing the total level closer to threshold. So, if we encounter multiple stressors within a short period of time, they will have an additive effect and can cause the individual to go over threshold and have a reaction.
How does trigger stacking affect fearful or reactive dogs?
We often talk about threshold when working with dogs who are overly sensitive and vigilant about their environment . . . specifically we talk about the importance of keeping them under threshold. Why? Because when these dogs go over threshold, they respond with explosive actions and lose all sense of reason, along with the ability to think. They cannot learn when they are in this kind of mindset.
Trigger stacking can be a major concern with these dogs. Let’s look at an example that will demonstrate how multiple stressors can affect a sensitive dog.
Scruffy and his owner are out for a walk and come upon a woman pushing a baby stroller – something that is completely new to Scruffy. As the stroller passes by, Scruffy’s owner notices that Scruffy is yawning and ducking his head away from the stroller. He can’t possibly be tired ….
A few blocks later, a loose dog runs out of his yard and starts barking at Scruffy. Scruffy cowers, moves behind his owner and starts licking his lips.The loose dog’s owner calls him away. Since Scruffy didn’t growl or bark at the loose dog, his owner assumes that it wasn’t a big deal, so they continue on their walk.
While Scruffy’s owner is at work, a pollster stops by the house, rings the bell and leaves a flyer on the door. Later, a delivery person rings the bell a couple of times and then leaves a package on the front step. Scruffy barks and growls each time the doorbell rings.
After work, the owner decides to take Scruffy out for another walk since he has been cooped in the house up all day. As they walk past the next door neighbor’s house, their dog walks up to the fence. Suddenly, Scruffy explodes – barking and lunging at the dog. The owner is very upset and yells at Scruffy as he drags him away. “What the heck is wrong with you?! You see that dog every day! You never act like that!”
Trigger Stacking and the Ladder of Aggression
The graphic below shows the way that canine body language advances from very subtle gestures to overly overt actions as a dog becomes more and more stressed and uncomfortable . . . often culminating in a bite if the stressor is not removed.
In addition to influencing how your dog reacts to stressors that he may encounter on a walk, trigger stacking is all too often the impetus behind a dog bite. Dogs do not bite “out of the blue”. Though the people involved may not recognize it, there is always a reason behind a bite. Dog bites are very often the result of someone not recognizing the body language that is indicative of the dog’s level of distress . . . until the dog advances to the level of using very overt signals such as barking, growing, snarling, snapping and biting.
Let’s take a look at another example.
Jane called a dog trainer, clearly in distress. Her Chihuahua, Joey had just bitten her. According to Jane, she was simply trying to wipe off Joey’s paw when he growled and snapped at her. The bite caught her forearm and left a red mark. Jane could not understand why this happened since she wipes off Joey’s paws all the time. The bite just came “out of the blue”. During their first session, the trainer asked Jane to tell her everything she could remember about what Joey’s day looked like leading up to the bite.
See if you can you recognize some of the signals that indicate that Joey was experiencing trigger stacking.
Joey had a veterinary appointment first thing in the morning. He doesn’t really like riding in the car, but since he is a little dog, Jane just lifts him up and pops him into the car. He sat still and pouted all the way to the vet – never giving Jane any eye contact.
At the veterinarian’s office, Joey was faced with all of the sites and strong medicinal scents of the receiving area and crouched down in a corner. When they got to the exam room, Joey hid under a chair. He had his ears back and wouldn’t look at Jane.
Joey’s vet was booked, so he saw a new vet and vet tech. He wouldn’t come out from under the chair, so Jane had to reach in and grab him. Since Joey wouldn’t sit still, the vet tech had to restrain him.
After a physical exam during which his teeth, ears and eyes were checked and his temperature was taken, Joey got a couple of vaccinations.
While they were in the office, it had started to rain. As Jane and Joey ran across the parking lot to their car, a big dog in another car barked and surprised them both.
Jane scooped Joey up and quickly popped him into the car before they both got soaked.
On the way home, Jane stopped off at a store. She had to leave Joey in the car – something he hates. But the weather was nice and cool and she just needed a couple of items, so he would be fine.
Joey started barking when Jane got out of the car and she could still hear him as she entered the store. When she came out, she could hear Joey barking as she approached the car. He was SO excited to see her. Silly boy, she was only gone for a few minutes.
On the way home, a car pulled out in front of Jane, she had to slam on the brakes. Joey slid off the seat, and then decided to just stay curled up on the floor.
When Jane and Joey arrived home, Joey walked through a couple of puddles on the way into the house. When they got inside, Jane set her bags down and grabbed a towel. She leaned over and took Joey’s leash off.
When she picked up his front paws to dry them off, Joey gave a bit of a growl and lifted his lip, but he does that sometimes so she kept going. When she grabbed his back leg to start drying his paw, Joey growled, spun around and nipped her arm.
Can you see all of these little triggers slowly adding up and how Joey was giving subtle signals throughout the morning in an attempt to tell Jane that he was feeling uncomfortable and stressed?
This is a perfect example of how we humans miss the subtle communications that tell us when our dog is becoming increasingly stressed . . . and, how these stressors can have an additive effect on the dog. None of these stressors in and of itself was enough to cause a bite, but as they continued to stack, they moved Joey up the ladder of aggression. Unfortunately, we too often see only the end result and view it as a gross overreaction to a tiny incident.
What can we do to help our dogs?
When Scruffy yawned as they passed the baby stroller and licked his lips when facing the loose dog, he was trying to tell his owner that he was uncomfortable with the situation. Be sure that you know how to recognize even the very subtle signs of stress in your dog. My blog, Dog Body Language: How to Speak Dog, is a great place to start. If you would like to take a deeper dive, check out my Canine Body Language for Pet Parents webinar. Norwegian dog trainer, Turid Rugaas, wrote a fantastic book on the subtleties of canine body language – On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals , Lili Chin has a very informative little book called Doggie Language that is filled with graphics and Tricia Hollingshead’sListen to Me is filled with color photos and fantastic information . . .
Mediate the intensity of the situation by controlling duration and distance with respect to your dog’s triggers. If you think that your dog might be getting trigger stacked, you can prevent outbursts by maximizing distance from triggers on your walk, go to a quiet place for a sniffari or even skip the walk and do some trick training, nosework or even a scatter feed in the yard instead.
Understanding Thresholds Diagram
Keep a journal of events that may be triggering to your dog and mediate the intensity of your dog’s encounters with his triggers in order to prevent over-threshold reactions and trigger stacking.
Possible triggering events to be aware of:
People ringing the doorbell
Grooming, nail clipping or other types of husbandry
A trip to the vet
A new object – a stroller, wheelchair, holiday decoration, etc.
A new location
A familiar location that has changed – an empty park may be full of people, a change in season or weather has changed a familiar landscape
A car ride
Other dogs or people when out on a walk
A new pet in the home
Visitors in the home
Losing a member of the household – moves/is out of town; a pet/person passed away
A pet sitter or boarding
Any change to his normal routine
Pain or illness
Time of day – light and shadows can effect visibility
Loud noises – construction; thunder; fireworks; car backfiring
Don’t push your dog’s boundaries until he is ready. If he is stressed by an event, take extra care with other possible triggers. Decrease intensity and duration as much as possible and increase distance as much as possible. There will be better days for reactivity training. Right now, your priority is self-care for your dog’s mental health.
If you and/or your dog are struggling, contact a certified professional dog trainer whose training philosophy is grounded in positive reinforcement to help.
The truth is … our dogs are speaking and they are begging us to listen to them. Unfortunately, too many of us do not understand the subtle signals that make up dog body language. When we don’t see, or if we choose to ignore, our dogs’ subtle signals, they have no choice but to speak louder through growls, barks, snarls … and even bites.
Growls are good!
In fact, growl is just your dog’s vocal way to tell you that he is uncomfortable and would like you to please stop doing what you are doing …
“I get anxious when you restrain me. Please stop hugging me.”
“It hurts when you pull on my matted fur. Please stop brushing me.”
“Cars are scary. Please stop forcing me to get in.”
“My joints hurt. Please stop petting my leg.”
“I just want to enjoy my dinner. Please stop sticking your hand in my bowl.”
In truth, we have to stop thinking of dogs as our own little furry puppets that must be happy no matter what we choose to do to them. Dogs are sentient beings that feel grumpy, scared, tired, etc. We need to respect those feelings and give our dogs the grace to choose to tell us “Not right now, please.”
A growl is not a personal attack on you …
… please don’t take it as such. How many times have you snapped at a family member who is pestering you when you have a headache or had a bad day at work or just want a bit of alone time? Your dog is simply trying to communicate in a way that you will understand.
Never punish your dog for growling.
The biggest mistake that we can make is to punish our dogs for growling. A dog that has learned that he will be punished will stop growling. As a result, rather than giving you this important warning signal, they will go from subtle signals, straight to a bite.
DOG BODY LANGUAGE
Dogs speak with their bodies. Sometimes our dogs’ emotions are written all over their faces, so it is easy to determine how they are feeling. For example, almost anyone can tell which of these two dogs is happy that you are approaching.
Most of the time, however, signs that a dog is uncomfortable are much more subtle. Does this dog want you to approach or move away? How can you tell? This blog post will teach you what subtle signals to look for and, what’s more, how to interpret dog body language.
We can tell a lot about how our dogs are feeling by observing their posture and body position. Happy, relaxed dogs have a loose, fluid posture.
Anxious or unsure dogs have a stiff posture.
If a dog’s posture stiffens when you approach, it is an indication that the dog is not comfortable. He is asking you to give him more distance. Similarly, crouching and/or leaning away are very clear indicators that you are too close.
Humans, dogs and other animals all have personal spacebubbles. The size of any individual’s personal space bubble is unique and dependent on many factors. Think about how you feel when someone invades your personal space.
Just like humans, dogs can get very uncomfortable when their personal space is invaded. Dogs will show their discomfort with subtle body language. If you don’t listen and give them space, they will do one of three things: freeze and hope you just go away, flee from you or, as a last resort, bark and lunge in order to make you move away. The inability to flee is why many leashed, crated and tethered dogs bark and lunge when people and dogs approach.
DOG BODY LANGUAGE: THE TAIL
Study your dog’s normal tail carriage or the normal carriage for his breed. A stressed dog will carry its tail high above its back or very low. – sometimes to the point of tucking it between the back legs. Docked tails not only impair a dog’s ability to express his feelings, but also make it difficult for other dogs (and people) to read his body language.
“His tail is wagging, he must be friendly.”
Yes. A happy dog will wag its tail; however, an anxious or stressed dog will also wag its tail. Do not assume that a wagging tail is a signal that the dog wants to be petted. A relaxed dog will wag its tail in a wide, slow arc. A dog that is highly aroused will hold its tail high and wag its tail rapidly in a very small arch. Do not judge a dog by its tail wag alone. Instead, always assess the entire dog.
DOG BODY LANGUAGE: THE EARS
Ear carriage changes with a dog’s emotions. Look at your dog’s normal ear carriage. When his ears move up and/or forward or if they drop down and/or back, he is feeling stress of some sort … anxious, unsure, concerned, etc..
As with tail docking, cropping a dog’s ears make reading dog body language difficult for people and other dogs.
DOG BODY LANGUAGE: THE FACE
A dog’s face displays a wealth of communication signals. The eyes, brows, mouth, tongue and even the whiskers will change with your dog’s emotional state. The signs of stress noted below can indicate that your dog is anxious, confused, concerned, frightened, etc. Regardless of the reason, when you see signs of stress in your dog, stop what you are doing and give him space.
Dogs will wrinkle their brow or raise their eyebrows when they are feeling stressed or unsure. This can lead to the classic “guilty look“. What this look really means is that your dog is feeling uncomfortable and unsure of a particular situation.
A relaxed dog’s eyes are generally more of an almond shape and have a soft look. An stressed dog may exhibit any of the following:
wide and round eyes
dilated pupils (the black circle in the middle of the eye is enlarged)
whale eye (an arc of white showing around the edges of the eyes)
“hard” eyes (more of a hard stare).
squinting – used to avoid eye contact
A relaxed dog has a relaxed mouth – either open, often with tongue hanging out, or closed with loose, relaxed lips. A stressed dog will have a closed, stiff mouth. In these dogs, the lips will be tense as well – often forming a long straight line than may create wrinkles at the corner of the mouth. If pressed, the dog may lift their lips to expose their teeth. This may or may not be accompanied by a growl.
The whiskers of a stressed dog will stick out prominently and be directed forward. The whisker bed will be raised (the area around each whisker will be very pronounced).
DOG BODY LANGUAGE: CALMING SIGNALS
When dogs feel anxious or are presented with stressful situations, they will perform behaviors meant to calm themselves or diffuse the situation. These behaviors are called calming signals or appeasement gestures. Calming signals include things like paw lifts, lip licking and yawns. When a dog is unsure, you will often see her avoiding eye contact either by turning her head to the side or by averting her eyes. Consequently, we often see calming signals when taking photos as pointing a camera/phone at a dog can make them uncomfortable.
STUDY THE ENTIRE DOG – NOT JUST ONE BODY PART
Some dogs will present multiple signals. On the other hand, some dogs will present only one or two signals. Remember – always judge the entire dog – not just one body part. A dog may be wagging its tail, but … How is he holding his tail? How fast is it wagging? What about his eyes and ears? Is his mouth closed and tense or open and relaxed?
It is important to realize that even puppies are speaking to us through their body language.
A. Open relaxed mouth, neutral ears, soft eyes, whiskers directed forward; This dog is exhibiting relaxed body language.
B. Stiff posture, body directed forward, closed mouth with lips set in a straight line, whiskers directed forward, ears set back and down, hard eyes, high tail carriage; This dog is exhibiting stressed body language.
Dog Body Language: Quiz 2:
Which of these dogs look happy to be the recipient of human attention?
A. Relaxed posture, open relaxed mouth, neutral ears, soft eyes; This dog is exhibiting relaxed body language.
B. Stiff posture with body directed backward, wide round eyes with whale eye (difficult to see with the blue eyes), furrowed brow, ears pinned down and back, closed mouth with straight lips, whiskers directed forward; This dog is exhibiting stressed body language.
C. Loose, relaxed posture, relaxed mouth, neutral ears; This dog is exhibiting relaxed body language.
D. Stiff posture, closed mouth with straight lips, airplane ears, head turned away, whiskers directed forward; This dog is exhibiting stressed body language.
E. Crouched posture, body directed away from the person, wide round eyes with whale eye, prominent whisker bed, closed mouth with straight lips, furrowed brow, ears pinned back; This puppy is exhibiting stressed body language.
F. Stiff posture with body directed away from person, yawning, squinting eyes; This dog is exhibiting stressed body language.
The dogs in photos A and C are the only ones in this group with relaxed body language. Note that in both of these photos, the human is not constraining the dog and is respecting its personal space.
Dog Body Language: Quiz 3
Using your new knowledge of body language, how do you interpret this photo? Does the dog want you to come closer or move away? What body language signals are telling you this?
This dog is saying: Move away.
Signals: Tense posture directed backward, ears are pinned back and down, head is turned away, whale eye, tense closed mouth; paw lift.
Dog Body Language: Quiz 4
Go back through the rest of the photos in this blog. What other stress signals do you see each dog exhibiting?
77% of dog bites happen with a family or friend's dog. Now that you know better, do better. "Stop the 77"
What makes for a great dog walk? Is it a power walk through your neighborhood with your Fitbit tracking your every step? Nope. That is YOUR walk. What your dog wants is an opportunity to just go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do. The ideal ‘walk’ for your dog is a time to just run free … time to just “dog” … to roll in the grass, to sniff, to dig, to chase critters …. The term decompression walk was defined by Sarah Stremming as “a walk where the dog is allowed freedom of movement in nature”. Decompression time for your dog has the same benefits as it does for us humans. Studies have shown that sniffing actually lowers your dog’s pulse rate and reduces their stress.
The best experience for any dog is time spent off-leash. If you plan to allow your dog to run off leash, there are some very important things to consider before you head out the door:
Are there ordinances in your area about off leash dogs? If so, make sure that you are going to off-leash friendly areas. Don’t be the dog owner that lets your dog off leash in on-leash only locations.
Make sure that your dog has a bomb-proof recall before letting your dog off leash in an un-enclosed space. Nothing good is going to come from this.
Be aware and respectful of others. Keep this in mind and prevent your dog from harassing others (remember that bomb-proof recall in #2). Not every dog wants to be your dog’s friend and not every person is comfortable around dogs … and they have the right to enjoy that space without being harassed by an off-leash dog.
But, what if you don’t have off-leash zones in your area, your dog doesn’t have a solid recall yet or she isn’t good with strange dogs or people?
Sniffspot is an online service that lists private “dog parks” that can be rented for solo use. These spaces may be as simple as someone’s backyard or they could be acres and acres of fenced land. Sniffspot is growing, but you won’t find spaces in every location.
No Sniffspots available in your area? No worries.
Even if you can’t find a safe space for a true off-leash experience, you can still get many of the benefits of off leash time through a more controlled Sniff Walk, or Sniffari. A sniff walk is a walk during which your dog is allowed the freedom to be a dog while still safely controlled with a harness and long line.
Sniff Walk How-To’s:
Long line. A long line is just a extra long leash that comes in lengths anywhere from 10 to 100 feet. They are great for training recalls, but make the perfect sniff walk leash. You can purchase a long line or simply make your own. Tie a clip to one end of a length of rope to hook to your dog’s harness. Then tie a loop at the other end for a handle.
Harness. A harness is much safer than a collar for any walk. Look for a harness that allows full range of motion. For example, harnesses with a band across the chest restrict shoulder movement.
Hands free leash system (optional). A hands-free belt to attach your long line to works great to free up your hands. Now you can dispense treats or handle the line to keep it from getting tangled.
Treat pouch with treats or kibble. If your dog has never been on a sniff walk, you may need to toss a few treats into the grass/bushes to encourage him and let him know that it is okay to sniff. Instead of treats, toss the food bowl and take your dog’s meal along to scatter feed in the grass.
Poop bags. Clean up after your dog.
Do not allow your dog to damage/destroy private or public property – including digging, crushing plants, etc.
I do not recommend using a retractable leash for several reasons:
First, they are dangerous. Many a dog owner or bystander can attest to retractable leash injuries such as rope burns, cuts, and even amputations. If you drop the leash, many dogs are terrified by the handle “chasing” them – making them harder to catch or, worse, causing them into run into traffic in an effort to escape. Finally, our goal is a relaxing walk and retractable leashes maintain a constant tension on the line which is not relaxing for the dog.
How do you find a safe space for a Sniff Walk?
If you live in a rural area, you probably don’t need to look too far to find a wonderful enclosed space for you dog to explore. But what if you live in a more urban area? Here is how you can locate a safe place for a sniffari.
First, set Google Maps or Mapquest to ‘satellite’ mode and type your home address into the search box.
Next, look for green spaces within easy walking or driving distance. Yes, you may need to drive a bit to find a good location.
Once you have located some potential spaces, check each one to determine if it will fit your needs. On the map below, I have marked potential green spaces in my area.
Check land ownership and local ordinances.
The red zones on the map are great spaces, but, sadly, off limits to dogs. Check your local ordinances for parks and cemeteries. If dog friendly, these make great sniff zones.
The purple and blue zones are all dog-friendly possibilities. The two largest purple zones are filled with fantastic nature trails. However, I have reactive dogs and these trails are often narrow with few opportunities to allow enough space for other dogs to pass by without triggering reactions. Since point of a sniff walk is to allow your dog to decompress, these areas are not good options for reactive dogs. Be sure to keep these kind of things in mind when searching for sniff walk spaces.
The little rectangle towards the top of the map is a tiny dog park. On occasion, I have been able to get this space all to myself, but it not always open and is quite small.
So, that leaves the blue zone.
This is a university campus and just happens to tick all th boxes.
Dog friendly (allow dogs and safe)
Easy walk from home (or easily accessible by car)
Plenty of green space and interesting textures, surfaces and smells to explore
Plenty of space to allow my dogs to get the distance they need from triggers
Tons of great places to sniff
Throughout COVID many college campuses and other public spaces have been relatively quiet zones – a definite perk for those of us with reactive dogs. When students and faculty are on campus, however, I simply time my walks for less active times of the day. In general, however, you won’t find owners out on sniff walks spending much time on the sidewalks. We are generally following our dogs across the lawns and checking out the bushes. So it is not too hard to avoid the human crowds.
Other great space options to check into:
Parks and playgrounds
Office parking lots or industrial parks
Beaches and waterfronts
Empty dog parks
Visitor center or rest area
Picnic area or campground
Paths and trails (beware of narrow trails)
*Be sure that you contact the property owner and/or check local laws and statutes before taking your dog onto private property.
So, now that we have the equipment and the space that we need, join us as we take our morning sniff walk!
I choose to take our sniff walks in the morning and bring breakfast along in my treat pouch. I use two-point attachment leashes – long leashes with clips at both ends and multiple rings to allow you to adjust the length of the lead. These give me the versatility of having 4-foot leashes when walking through the neighborhood, and the ability to allow the full 8 feet of line for sniffing.
Once on campus, I can let out the lines. My 8-foot leashes don’t allow for as much freedom as a 15- or 30-foot long line. That said, they do allow me to take everyone out together and maintain control if we encounter groups of people on campus. It is also convenient for me to not have to carry along four separate long lines every day.
Once I lengthen the leashes, the dogs are in charge.
We go wherever they take me and sniff whatever they want and for as long as they choose. One exception: They are allowed to sniff the flowers, but not trample through the beds.
Occasionally, I will toss out a handful of kibble in the grass for them to snuffle. The dogs are in charge here as well. They choose the scatter spots by slowing down and looking back at me. Once they have finished their snuffling, we are off again.
Do NOT try to scatter feed with multiple dogs in the same space without some prior training. Sign up for a consultation with me, or talk to your dog trainer about safety layers that can be used when working with multiple dogs. Never do this if any one of your dogs has even a hint of resource guarding tendencies. Instead, either take your dogs for solo sniff walks or do scatter feeds back at home in separate spaces.
Remember, this is your dog’s walk. You are on his clock and he gets to set the agenda. Go with the flow, enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, take the opportunity to catch up on podcasts or listen to an audiobook … and enjoy !
The old saying “a tired dog is a good/happy dog” once meant that you should engage your dog in as much physical activity as possible to tire him out. At the time, we didn’t realize that we were just building a better athlete, while neglecting our dog’s mental health.
Research now shows that there are many other ways to “tire out your dog” and reduce boredom through various types of enrichment activities.
According to a 2009 study, “Non-domestic, stray and feral animals spend the majority of their time foraging for food.
In addition, they must seek out or construct resting areas and avoid predators and other natural hazards. Pet animals on average spend less than 15 minutes per day eating because they do not have to forage for food. The majority of dog breeds were developed for some functional purpose (guarding, herding, hunting, etc.). Few animals actually participate in these activities, leaving them with no constructive outlet for behavior patterns that are biologically generated.” In fact, studies have indicated that “up to 60 percent of companion dogs don’t even get a regular walk.” (Canine Enrichment)
As early as the 1960’s, zookeepers were beginning to understand the need for enriching the lives of captive animals. Increased enrichment has been shown to reduce stress in zoo and shelter animals, reduce reactivity and increase both physical and mental health. In the 1970’s, Dr. Hal Markowitz, an early pioneer in captive animal behavior, defined the term enrichment as meaning “a synonym for ‘more like nature.’ ” More recently, researchers in Sweden conducted a study with a group of beagles. They found that “The experimental animals in our study were excited not only by the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves could control their access to the reward. These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare.”
In a recently published book on this topic, Canine Enrichment for the Real World, authors Allie Bender and Emily Strong define the term as “Enrichment is learning what our dogs’ needs are and then structuring an environment for them that allows them, as much as is feasible, to meet those needs.”
Canine enrichment is a broad term used to describe methods that enhance a dog’s life and meet its needs. This includes its biological need for nutrition, shelter and medical care. Besides basic husbandry, there are four other categories of enrichment – emotional, social, physical and mental.
Emotional enrichment includes the love, trust and security of a safe and happy home. Social enrichment is met through bonding and play with both humans and other dogs. For human play, think things like fetch, tug, flirt poles, sprinkler games, bubbles and hide & seek.
Physical enrichment is met through exercise. E.g., hikes, parkour, sniff walks, running, playing, and many different types of dog sports.
Mental enrichmentis an activity whereby a dog’s mind is exercised through cognitive and sensory stimulation. Mental and sensory stimulation can be accomplished through trick training, puzzles, music, nosework, play, new sights and sounds, etc.
Dogs evolved as predators, foragers and scavengers. Studies show that 24/7 access to a full bowl of food day in and day out is simply not healthy. An alarming number of dogs are overweight or obese – which leads to health problems and a decreased lifespan. (For more information on the problem of obesity in dogs, visit this page.) In addition, it is, simply put, boring. Dogs don’t have much to do during the day. They get a quick potty break in the morning, a walk when you get home from work and, in between, hours of time with nothing to occupy their minds. Bored dogs, just like bored kids, will invent ways to entertain themselves. Boredom leads to behavioral problems – from barking and inappropriate chewing to separation anxiety and hyperactivity. Boredom can even escalate to reactivity.
One easy way to meet many of your dog’s enrichment needs is through food enrichment. Food enrichment
satisfies your dog’s natural instinct to forage
slows down eating to aid digestion and reduce bloat
makes meal times more interesting for picky eaters
provides an energy outlet
reduces stress and anxiety
reduces inclination to chew, bark and dig, etc.
calm a dog after a surgery, injury or spay/neuter when physical activity must be limited
Did you know that many professional dog trainers provide all of their dogs’ food through training? These dogs never eat from a bowl.
You will hear us telling our clients to “toss the food bowl.” We mean this quite literally. Here are some ideas for tossing the food bowl and enriching your dog’s day through food activities.
How do I get started with food enrichment?
A good first step can be as simple as adding new flavors and textures to your dog’s meals. Add a novel topper to your pup’s kibble. E.g., a scoop of yogurt, cottage cheese or pumpkin, cut up apple, pear or banana, freeze-dried liver bits or sardines. When training with minimal distractions, try mixing some frozen green beans, baby carrots or blueberries in with your regular treats.
Now that I have your attention, let’s work toward increasing your dog’s enrichment through food activities!
Worried about how much food your dog will be getting if you start adding more treats and additional food-related activities to your dog’s day?
Take all of the food that your dog is going to get during the day. Put it in a single container. This is what you have to work with throughout the day. Use some for training and some for enrichment games. When using non-kibble additions, simply calculate this into the day’s portion and remove kibble to accommodate these new items.
Be Sure to Feed Only Dog-Safe Foods
Before starting any food enrichment activity, be sure that you have a list of foods that are not safe to feed. Read all ingredients lists and consult your list of unsafe foods before using any new food type or new product brand.
Xylitol is used as a sweetener, as a medication and as a way to prevent tooth decay and dry mouth. It is HIGHLY toxic to dogs. Be sure to check labels in your household for items containing xylitol. Store them where your dog is not able to get to them.
Food enrichment activities should always be done under close supervision. Take the time to introduce your dog to new activities and teach him how to do it. When your dog is finished with the activity, pick it up and put it away so that your dog does not destroy or ingest it. “Kong” type toys are generally safe for unsupervised crate time. If you are absolutely certain that your dog is not going to ingest things, some food dispenser toys and cardboard tubes/boxes could be another option for your dog.
Rotate activities and toys to keep things new and exciting for your pup.
If you have a multi-dog household, they should be separated for food enrichment activities. This will reduce resource guarding and avoid possible fights. Working alone allows your dog to slow down and really enjoy the activity – rather than having it be a race to finish first. If you plan to do activities without separating your dogs, be sure that you supervise them closely. Watch for any body language that may indicate a problem.
Puzzle (Slow Feed) Bowls
Puzzle bowls are the most basic type of food enrichment. They work well for dogs that are just starting out. Outward Hound, Northmate and PAW5 all make puzzle bowls. You don’t have to purchase a puzzle bowl. Try putting a ball or two in with your dog’s regular kibble. Adding an obstacle to work around or substitute something like a muffin tin. You can even add water or diluted broth to their food bowl and freeze.
Food Stuffer Toys
Kong-type food stuffing toys are one of the most popular food activities for dog owners. If you shop sales, you can pick up a variety of stuffing toys. Once you have several, prepare them ahead of time and pop them in the freezer. Now you can just pull one out anytime you need it. Kong, Busy Buddy, SodaPup and West Paw are just a few of the companies that produce stuffing toys.
**Be sure to pick the correct size and type for your dog.
How to Stuff a Stuffer:
If your dog is a beginner, start out by filling the cavity with kibble or dry treats. Cap it off with some wet food, squeeze cheese or peanut butter. The wet topper will keep your pup interested until they reach the kibble jackpot.
Once your pup has the hang of it, try filling with kibble that has been soaked in water or broth. You can even just mix the kibble with wet stuff (pumpkin, yogurt, baby food, peanut butter, etc.).
Pack it loosely at first and then start packing it tighter.
Finally, once you have an advanced dog, you are ready to start freezing it. If you are not able to freeze the entire toy, you can freeze things in ice cube trays or small silicone molds. Add this to your stuffer toy, along with kibble or ingredients.
What do I use to stuff a stuffer?
You can mix wet and dry ingredients. Try peanut butter, apple sauce and banana chunks or yogurt, pumpkin and green beans. Soak dry kibble until soggy and mix with cottage cheese and apple chunks.
For more ideas, go to the Kong Company – or simply search the internet for kong stuffing recipes.
DIY Stuffer Toy Enrichment Ideas
Hoof/Horn/Bone: If you are like me, you have a variety of hooves, horns and bones lying around the house. Why not try using them as stuffing toys.
Paper Towel or Toilet Paper Tube: Put kibble in a tube. Fold the ends over or cap the ends with packing paper. You can also fill the tube with kibble, cap both ends with wet ingredients and then freeze.
Kitchen Items – muffin tins, ice cube trays, old measuring cups, etc.
PVC: Pick up a pvc elbow or tee, stuff it and freeze it. Alternatively, you can just smear some peanut butter all around the inside surface.
Try putting a few treats/veggies/fruit into ice cube trays and fill with dilute broth. Freeze. Give a cube to your dog, add one to his bowl, put one in a kong or even float a couple of cubes in a bowl of water or even in a kiddy pool on a hot day.
Put treats/veggies/fruit and broth in a paper cup. Stick in a milk bone or carrot that will act as your pupsicle stick. Freeze, unmold and serve.
Same concept, but with an ice cream container. Freeze and unmold in the yard on a hot day. If you have a large enough container, you can even freeze a ball or other toys into the mold.
Licki Mats are silicone squares with ridges that will hold food in the crevices. Smear yogurt, peanut butter or pumpkin in the recesses, stick in some kibble, cut up fruit or veggies and either feed as is or freeze. You can use anything with a textured surface as a licki mat. E.g., silicone ice cube trays or candy molds, a grease spatter guard, silicone hot pads, etc.
Dogs are natural foragers and scatter feeding is a perfect way to tap into that instinctive behavior. This is as simple as taking a portion of your dog’s kibble and scattering it in the yard or on the floor and let him sniff it out. Generally, scatter feeding can be done with multiple dogs in the same space. However, be sure that you keep an eye on your dogs’ body language for any signs of tension. It is always safest to separate dogs with something like an x-pen until you are confident that there will be no fighting
Variation on Scatter Feeding:
Change things up by putting your dog in another room and then set up a scatter trail. Start near the doorway that your dog will enter. Make a trail of treats to lead your dog to another area or room where you have done a scatter or placed a stuffer toy. Scatter feed while watching television in the evening. Just grab your dog’s dinner. Toss it a couple of pieces at a time around the room and ask him to “Find It”.
Snuffle mats come in many shapes and sizes and satisfy your dog’s need for foraging and mental stimulation. A standard snuffle mat resembles a rug with very long shag. The idea is to tuck kibble or treats down into the mat and let your dog snuffle around to find them.
To start out, tuck a few pieces of kibble into the mat and scatter some over the top. Once your pup understands how the game works, you can hide the kibble deep down in the snuffle mat. A lot of dogs will try to disassemble the mat to see if there are any stray treats hiding deep inside. If you have such a pup, be sure to pick up the snuffle mat as soon as your dog has finished the game and put it away for next time.
Variations on the Snuffle Mat: You can turn a basket with holes in it into a snuffle basket. Take a few leftover pieces of fleece, roll a few pieces of kibble or treat up in them and put those in a box. Stuff the rolled up pieces of fleece into a Hol-ee Roller ball.
Make Your Own Snuffle Mat A simple snuffle mat can be constructed in an evening.
Materials: – plastic sink mat – 1-2 fleece blankets or about 1 ½ – 2 yards of fleece – scissors or rotary cutter
Directions: Cut the fleece into strips, about 1″ wide and 8 to 10” long. Thread a strip through each hole in the sink mat and tie it off. Make sure that you have tied a strip through every single hole. Viola! – snuffle mat!
Other DIY Snuffling Activities
Lay out a towel flat. Scatter kibble or treats all over it and then roll it up. Let your dog unroll it. To make it more difficult, try tying the roll in a knot, hiding it somewhere in the house or putting it in a box with the flaps closed. You can also scatter treats along one half and fold the towel lengthwise. Scatter more treats on top and then roll it up.
Variations on Towel Roll – Use an old pair of jeans and roll treats up in each leg. Spread out a blanket. Scatter kibble on top. Accordion fold the blanket or grab the center and twist to create folds and swirls to hide the treats.
Simply take an empty cardboard box, toss in kibble or a few treats, and turn your dog loose. Once your dog has the hang of this game, fill the box with packing paper, toilet paper or paper towel tubes or tennis balls. You can use kibble or treats, veggies or fruit or even drop in a frozen stuffer toy.
To add a bit of a challenge, fold the bottom of a TP tube. Drop in a few pieces of kibble. Fold the top to make a little packet. Toss these into the box. For even more of a challenge, close up the flaps of the box. Note: If your dog ingests this type of material, only provide this activity when you can actively supervise your dog. This is a great activity for dogs who enjoy the act of ripping up or dissecting toys. The act of ripping up the box goes a long way in meeting the needs of these dogs.
Another great activity with boxes is to “sleeve” them inside of one another like a nesting doll. Take multiple cereal boxes and sleeve them into one another. Slip treats or kibble between the layer. Now let your dog have the time of his life dissecting your masterpiece.
Do you have a laundry basket or a plastic tub lying around? Toss in some kibble and top with balls. If you have a large enough container, toss in some empty water/soda bottles. Be sure to take of the caps and plastic ring to remove any choking hazards.
Take a set of small plastic cones, dishes or plastic cups and set them up around the room. Place kibble or treats underneath them and let your dog work out how to get to the treats. Once she has the hang of it, try putting kibble under only a few of them. Let her figure out which ones are hiding the kibble.
Put some treats in the cups of a muffin tin. Cover them with tennis balls, toys or even silicone muffin liners. Once your dog has the idea, place the whole thing in a basket or a box that just fits the tin. When the dog pushes the balls off the cups, they will keep rolling back over. This makes it a bit more challenging.
Put some treats in the cups of an egg carton and close up the carton. To make it more challenging, you can tape the carton shut, roll the treats in bits of packing paper or scraps of polar fleece. Then put those parcels in the egg carton cups.
Paper Towel and Toilet Paper Tubes
Turn these into little treasure packets by folding one end, dropping in a few pieces of kibble or treats and then folding the other end closed. You can hide these around the house or tuck them into boxes or baskets. If your dog tends to swallow large chunks, start with paper towel tubes for a larger packet. Teach him how to rip open the packet to get to the treasure. Do not use wet, oily or sticky food stuffs like hot dog, cheese or peanut butter. These encourage your dog to eat the cardboard that has that oily, sticky food residue on it.
Purchased Enrichment Toys and Puzzles
There is a huge variety of puzzles for dogs on the market. Many of them are labeled with a rating of how difficult/advanced they are.
There are many different food dispensing toys on the market: Kong Wobbler, Buster Cube, Tug a Jug, Kibble Nibble, Twist a Treat, Kong Gyro, etc. The list goes on and on. Some are very simple balls with a hole in it. Others have a plastic maze inside or other mechanism to slow the dispensing rate and make the toy more difficult.
If you want to slow down dispensing rate, you can use larger treats/kibble that don’t fall out as easily. Some toys that come apart have enough space to put a ball inside. As the toy tips, the ball will cover the hole occasionally and slow the dispensing of treats.
DIY Food Dispensing Toys
Water Bottle or Milk Jug
Remove the lid and plastic ring (these are choking hazards). Wash out the bottle and then drop in a few treats. Your dog will have a great time trying to get the treats out.
Bottle Tipping Activity
You will need a couple of empty milk jugs and a curtain/tension rod. Thread the tension rod through the jug handles. Hang the whole thing in a doorway at a level between your dog’s chest and eye level. Drop some treats in the jugs and show your pup how to tip the jug to get treats to drop. You can also use 2-liter soda bottles. Drill two holes on opposite sides just above the label. Then thread the tension rod through the holes.
Take a long piece of string, yarn or fishing line. String on a few chunks of fruit or veggies, spacing them out along the line. Hang this at your dog’s eye level (e.g., in a doorway, between cabinets or between trees in the yard). Let your pup figure out how to get them off the string. Watch your dog closely to be sure that he does not eat the string!
Pick up an 8 to 12” piece of ~2″ diameter PVC pipe and a couple of caps. Drill a few holes in the pipe, just a bit larger than your kibble/treats. Sand the edges of the holes until there are no rough edges. Put in some treats/kibble, cap the ends and let your dog roll it to release treats. If you want to be a bit fancier, use the pvc pipe, one regular cap, a threaded end and a threaded cap. You can use pvc glue to attach the regular cap on one end of the pipe and the threaded cap on the other. Now you just need to unscrew the end, drop in treats, screw it back on and it is ready to go.
Hide and Seek
Fill multiple toys. Put your dog in another room, hide the toys, and then turn your dog loose. This can work well when you leave the house for the day as long as you use toys that your dog can’t/won’t ingest. If your dog will ingest toys, try doing a snuffle trail that leads them to a frozen kong or other safe toy. You could also hide pieces of kibble or treats inside boxes or other containers and place them around the room.
Sensory Maze or Obstacle Course
On a day when you can’t get out with your dog, try putting together everything you have learned to set up a sensory maze or obstacle course. Use x-pens, boxes or pieces of cardboard to set up a maze or obstacle course for your dog. Fill it with enrichment activities and obstacles.
Using Enrichment as a Calming Activity
Food enrichment activities can also be used to calm your dog during stressful situations. Counter conditioning works by associating something scary with something that your dog enjoys. He will learn to like (or at least tolerate) the scary thing since it means something good is about to happen.
Is your dog stressed during a bath? Smear peanut butter on your bathtub surround so you dog can lick it during a bath. They also make a licki bone with suction cups that sticks to walls, floors, etc. Try lining the tub with a towel before adding water. Some dogs are more scared of the slippery surface than they are of getting a bath. Does your dog hate having her nails clipped? Pull one of those frozen kongs out of the freezer . Give her a lick or a treat after every nail. Is your dog afraid of the vet? Bring a licki mat along. A groomer mit with rubber teeth serves as a good portable licki mat.
A mentally enriched dog is a happy (and tired) dog, so Toss that Food Bowl!!
For a million and one other food enrichments ideas, check out of these facebook pages:
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Haug, Lore Il, DVM, MS, DACVB. “Enrichment in dogs and cats”. DVM360 Kansas City Proceedings, August 1, 2009.
Ragen McGowan, et al. “Positive Affect and Learning: Exploring the ‘Eureka Effect’ in dogs”. Animal Cognition, vol. 17: 577-587 (2014).
Herron, M. E., T. M. Kirby-Madden and L. K. Lord. “Effects of Environmental Enrichment on the Behavior of Shelter Dogs”. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 244 (6): 687-692 (2014)
Bekoff, Marc. “Working for Food Enriches Dogs’ Lives and Break the Boredom”. Psychology Today. May8, 2019.
Bender, Allie and Emily Strong. Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Dogwise Publishing. (2019).